Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:02 PM
SANFORD, Fla. -- Neighborhood Watch evokes scenes of get-to-know-you barbecues and folks keeping an eye on neighbors' homes while they're out of town or working late.
Until last month, it did not conjure images of teenagers being shot to death by the people who run a program designed to help keep communities safe.
Then George Zimmerman, who coordinated the Neighborhood Watch at a town-house community in Sanford, shot and killed unarmed Miami Gardens high-school student Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, sparking a collective rage that has spread nationwide and beyond.
Chris Tutko, director of Neighborhood Watch for the National Sheriffs' Association, said Zimmerman broke some cardinal rules.
First, he approached a stranger he suspected of wrongdoing.
"If you see something suspicious, you report it, you step aside and you let law enforcement do their job," Tutko said. "This guy went way beyond the call of duty. At the least, he's overzealous."
Second, Zimmerman carried a handgun. Police departments and sheriff's offices that train volunteers advise them never to carry weapons -- though Zimmerman broke no laws by doing so because he has a concealed-weapons permit.
"There's no reason to carry a gun," Tutko said.
Police said Zimmerman was running an errand in his SUV -- with his gun -- when he first spotted Trayvon walking back from 7-Eleven about 7:15 p.m. Zimmerman called police to report Trayvon as suspicious, and although a dispatcher said he didn't need to follow the teen, the two got into a scuffle.
Zimmerman shot Trayvon once in the chest with a 9 mm handgun, officers said. The 17-year-old died steps from the home of his father's fiancee, where he had been visiting. Zimmerman claimed self-defense and was not arrested. Because of public outrage, a special prosecutor, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI are investigating.
Now, with Neighborhood Watch in the spotlight, organizers want people to know what it is -- and what it is not.
"I'm disappointed that people are trying to put blame onto the program when it's not the program's fault," said Wendy Dorival, who coordinates volunteer programs, including Neighborhood Watch, for the Sanford police. "Neighborhood Watch is not what took his life away."
The program was created in 1972 by the National Sheriffs' Association to help prevent crime as people relocated more often and more women entered the work force, loosening community ties. After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the initiative expanded to include emergency response, terrorism awareness and disaster preparedness.
Its core mission has not changed, however: to build a sense of togetherness so people care enough to look after one another.
Some Neighborhood Watch groups patrol their communities. Others simply observe in the course of their daily routine and report anything out of the ordinary to law enforcement.
The Neighborhood Watch at Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Zimmerman lived and was coordinator, was formed in September, Dorival said. It is not registered with the national group, but there is no registration requirement. The Sanford Police Department provides training and community signs, and informs residents about crime trends and prevention.
Zimmerman raised no red flags during an organizational meeting Sept. 22, and no one had complained about him before the shooting, Dorival said.
Sanford and the Volusia County Sheriff's Office have another volunteer program called Citizens on Patrol. In Volusia, those volunteers ride two to a Sheriff's Office-issued car. They undergo background and driver checks, an hourlong interview and 60 hours of training.
"We don't want any cop wannabes or people thinking they're going out and acting like cops and making arrests," sheriff's spokesman Gary Davidson said. "If we think that's the motivation, we're going to weed them out."
Neighborhood Watch, by contrast, is less formal and is run by residents -- although volunteers in both programs are told not to confront anyone. Their job is to observe and describe suspicious people or cars to law officers and help make their neighbors aware of problems.
"We tell people, 'Don't be a hero,'" Dorival said. "Don't risk it."
Watch group improved other Sanford neighborhood
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